The “Belief” Problem

The United States has a significant problem with “belief” today, and it’s not so much what Americans believe as how too many of them believe.

Many beliefs are based on facts and long observation. The sun rises and sets every day, and people believe that it will – and from what science can tell us, that has occurred for billions of years and will continue for billions more, although the length of each day will increase by an infinitesimal amount each year. We believe in gravity, because, here on earth, when you drop something, it falls. Those and other beliefs are based on factual observations, and they can be checked against physical reality. Some people, such as flat-earthers, still deny that physical reality, but most people believe in physical reality.

Admittedly, our physical senses gather information and our brain processes that information to interpret those impressions and create an image of that physical reality, but while images may differ from individual to individual, the physical world – more precisely the energy fields that comprise the world – are not dependent on whether an individual believes in that reality.

Then there are beliefs about what cannot be proven in any scientific fashion (or at least not yet), such as whether there is a divine being or multiple universes or dimensions.

And finally, there are beliefs about what I’ll call aspects or views of reality. Some of those beliefs accept that an event occurred, but different people hold different beliefs about whether the event was beneficial, evil, or a mixture of both. In these instances, those with different views don’t dispute that the event occurred, but only how it’s viewed. There are many views about the creation of the modern state of Israel, but almost no one would dispute that the state of Israel exists.

Then there are those who believe that something which can be verified as occurring did not occur… or they believe that something that did not occur actually happened. For these people, truth or accuracy has no effect on their beliefs.

From what I’ve observed over a moderately long life is that more and more people are now so strongly invested in certain beliefs that they feel strongly, overwhelmingly, that “if I believe this, it must be so. It cannot be otherwise.”

The problem with this view is that reality, accuracy, and facts are what they are, and while beliefs can change human actions and perceptions, they cannot change what has already happened or the physical laws of the universe. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop these “true believers,” and all too often the rest of us pay for such false beliefs, often dearly.

11 thoughts on “The “Belief” Problem”

  1. Postagoras says:

    It’s funny and a little sad that you’re posting about folks who stick with their beliefs no matter what.

    I’m not arguing with you- just wondering who your audience is. The folks who agree, or the folks who will “die on the hill” of their ignorance?

    1. From what I’ve seen posted here — some of both.

      But then, almost all of us have a trace of a belief or beliefs that aren’t that well-founded that we don’t want to relinquish.

      1. Tom says:

        Yes indeed: I believe I like the way you write.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    I suspect that the existence or nonexistence of a supreme eternal omni-everything being is unprovable in our present existence, perhaps even purposely so (it might nullify free will and “faith”); or if not purposely, either it favors nonexistence, or it favors some form of divinity that doesn’t have to have existed from eternity past, be it Tipler’s version of the Omega Point or a Boltzmann brain or Asimov’s Cosmic AC (“The Last Question”) or something even stranger. Or at the very least unprovable in the negative, leaving the question open without some understanding outside the scope of science accessible to we the living.

    There are hints that there may be other conditions under which the question might be answerable, but if objective examples ever existed, they were last documented long before formal scientific method existed. 🙂 Although I’m satisfied personally that there’s things far beyond any science we know, having experienced (once each) knowledge “given” to me of something I could not have known, and (just perhaps more than once for this, but it runs in the family…and I must have gotten a bit of it even though I don’t like the idea and am skeptical of it too) knowledge of someone else’s state of mind at a distance without any conventional communication; I did have some conventional context from which the latter might have been identifiable, but it was NOT fun, it was like experiencing someone else’s stress as if it was happening to me, but not knowing why it was happening, and only realizing it was someone else because they were fighting back far better than I would (I would have had my pity party, and then locked it in a box when it became tiresome, to perhaps never resolve it). Given that, when later information was consistent with the interpretation of who it was and what happened, I did not want to trouble someone already troubled by asking for confirmation of timing; if true, such a paranormal event would have alarmed them even more than it did me, and made things worse. If such things must happen, I’d prefer they provided useful, helpful information, not something I can’t use to either help myself or determine whether there was even an extraordinary event involved. I’m perhaps hopeful because I’ve heard of relatives having somewhat similar communications that were occasionally useful.

    Some versions of a multiverse (there’s many different flavors of multiverse!) may be untestable almost by definition. Others may be implied by some otherwise satisfactory theory, but the question of their physical existence might be otherwise meaningless absent any way to observe direct evidence of them – although while one might on the one hand argue in favor of simplicity, on the other one might suppose that given sufficient size and time, not just anything but everything that can happen will happen (perhaps subject to some limitations; another sci-fi author countered with examples of something physically possible but quite senseless, like an author with multiple published books which had all blank pages and people buying them…although there are indeed prop books much like that, with blank or unreadable content, although they’re not a mass market item by any means), thus perhaps requiring every possible universe that is not somehow forbidden.

    There are arguments that 3+1 dimensions is privileged (not counting other dimensions which may be necessary for the math of a theory but otherwise negligible); interestingly, some such theories also allow or require multiverses. 🙂 M theory has 11 dimensions with those other than the familiar 3+1 “compactified”, untestable unless two “branes” (think of a 3+1 dimensional universe as an analogy to a 2 dimensional sheet within a greater 3 dimensional volume, perhaps moving, perhaps with more than one sheet present) collide, not something an observer in either would be likely to survive to confirm as a direct observation. But there are complaints that the number of possible configurations of universes in M theory is so vast as to make it effectively untestable whether one exists corresponding to what we observe. I’m probably not saying some of that regarding multiverses or dimensions entirely correctly, since although interested, I never felt inclined to pursue the MUCH higher math required to really explore such ideas – although in retirement, I have looked at what a potential course list for that might be like. (if there’s a symbol for fascinated and terrified at the same time, imagine it here)

    But to end this comment, I’d say that as long as people don’t kill or seek to dominate or control (we _all_ merely manipulate) others with such ideas as an excuse, I’d say that presently or even definitely untestable ideas are still useful for the learning involved in pursuing them until either proof or proof of the impossibility of proof. Take Fermat’s Last Theorem: it was finally proved after many tried and despaired, although either Fermat made a mistake or his “proof(?)” was very different than what Wiles’ came up with, since much that was based on wasn’t even conceived of in Fermat’s time; more than 3 1/2 centuries later, Wiles’ proof, built on mathematical developments over those centuries, is described as having considerable significance well beyond FLT itself. Until the proof, FLT was “faith”; many were unrewarded except for what they learned in the struggle. There may still be something to be learned by those who wish to determine whether a proof of reasonable length using only math available to Fermat was possible. Or maybe the paranormal intervened, and Fermat (who had made other assertions lacking a proof that turned out to be correct) was a bit of a prophet. 🙂 I haven’t dug deep enough to determine if he passed the accuracy test for a prophet, or if some of his assertions were wrong (making him just an improbably good guesser of things for which there were examples but for which he lacked proof). I have had once, when quite sick (and probably OD’d on Benadryl, which I’ll never take in caplet form again, only liquid), an image of a degree of interconnectedness (imagine a vast web in 3+1 dimensions with nodes for every particle, person, etc); it was more than a dream, but also far more than a finite mind could hold and remain undamaged, and not something from which one could bring much back to use or test. Maybe I’ll know more one day, but I may not be around to report it. 🙂

  3. Joe says:

    “if I believe this, it must be so. It cannot be otherwise.”

    Actually, this is probably not nefarious. It is expected from Bayes Theorem: if the knowledge base you have learned from your experience preassumes certain facts, then dislodging those facts becomes nigh impossible. That’s why Science advances one funeral at a time. It’s also why people experience culture shock. It takes real constant effort to consider the other sides of every argument to combat it, and even so, there are so many assumptions built into every argument that one can only but fail.

    That is also why our descendants (assuming they survive) will find us just as bizarre as we find our ancestors from 400 years ago. I find this thought interesting as it shows us how many of our beliefs are based on following consensus rather than on actual thought, despite our belief that we are reasoning independent individuals.

  4. Grey says:

    Well, I’m glad that the Arizona recount has concluded that not only did Biden win, but that the margin of victory was actually wider than officially reported.

    In the spirit of this essay, I’m confident that everyone will put this behind them and move on with their lives.

  5. Darcherd says:

    Years ago I saw a wonderful pair of definitions on a poster:
    “Belief”: Something which you do not believe
    “Fact”: Something which you do believe

  6. MRE says:

    It seems to me that the conservative party in the US has made a concerted effort to derail the usual social networks and fact-based analysis that people trust to present them with trustworthy information. I think this is because they are attempting to shift from a political party into a religious movement (cult of personality sounds too kooky and idiosyncratic).

    If asked, “What set of information would change your mind about supporting your candidate?” I have seen none of current conservatives willing or able to present a hypothetical set of information that would change their minds. Without a means of changing opinions, the current GOP is cultivating a crop of zealots supporting a religion, not a group of good little Bayesians who update their beliefs based on new information. Indeed, the aggressive attack on ANY source of objective information–or even the idea that there CAN be objective truth–is just another tool to grow the religion. Because if there is no way to ascertain any shred of objective reality, we might as well believe in what we want. And what we want is to hate and blame “the Democrat Party.”

    I contrast this with how my own views have changed over the last few years. I gave Trump the benefit of the doubt when he first entered office (it would have been amusing if this weird reality show contestant had actually become a successful President), but grew steadily less comfortable with him as he tweeted insanity and easily disprovable lies on a daily basis. Well before the election, I’d written him off as a crazy person who needed to be voted out of office as soon as possible after he started “fake newsing” everything and canceled press conferences.

    And yet, if he turned around and admitted his mistakes and took responsibilities for his actions during his presidency, I might consider supporting him during his next run if he ends up being the candidate. I’d throw up in my mouth doing it, but if he committed to stop being a nutcase and behaved rationally, I might vote for him.

    The point that is becoming clearer to me is that Biden is being supported by voters that can, and have been, changing and updating their opinions. While the GOP is cultivating religious belief. And religions, for all their problems, do a very good job creating unified, uncritical support, while Biden is leaking voters based on a the usual political forces and screwups that lower presidential support over time.

    Hopefully, the American electorate will still find some way to absorb the state of objective reality before the next election. Democracy might depend on it.

  7. Joe says:

    The Times of London decided to publish yesterday an opinion piece that argues that by international democratic standards, the US election of Biden should count as rigged.

    Are facts in the eye of the beholder?

    1. Jerry says:

      I find it more alarming that people like to reminisce about the days when media was unbiased. The media is run by people, and people are always biased.

      As for rigging the election… let’s talk when gerrymandering ends and a minority is no longer able to stop the majority opinion. That may be difficult though, as certain members of the minority (some of who I call friend) seem to believe that 5 million votes where fake.

    2. Tom says:

      Your reference (
      read very like something from the Washington Times or the Hindustan Times. So I looked up what bios there were on Roderick Liddle and I was not surprised by the result.

      Roderick E. Liddle: …. In 2010 he was the first journalist to have a complaint against a blog post he had written to be upheld by the Press Complaints Commission, over a claim that he could not prove about the African-Caribbean community….A November 2011 article by Liddle in The Spectator about the trial of two men involved in the murder of Stephen Lawrence led to the magazine being prosecuted for breaching reporting restrictions. A court hearing was held in June 2012, in which The Spectator pleaded guilty to contempt of court and accepted a fine of £5,000 plus costs. …

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